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Nonverbal Communication as an Essential Element of Patient-Centered Care

Nonverbal Communication as an Essential Element of Patient-Centered Care

Effective verbal communication is the bedrock of quality, patient-centered care. Healthcare providers and staff undoubtedly are aware of the continued emphasis and importance placed on verbal communication through various quality measures and standards. However, good nonverbal communication — facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, posture, and tone of voice — also is essential. Research suggests that the majority of daily communication is nonverbal, which stresses the importance that this aspect of communication plays in human interactions.1

The ability to understand and use nonverbal communication, or body language, is a powerful tool that can help healthcare professionals connect with patients in a positive way and reinforce mutual understanding and respect.2

Providers should have situational awareness of their nonverbal communication so they can recognize potentially problematic body language and consciously change it. For example, certain situations might trigger negative nonverbal reactions, such as seeing a difficult patient, managing a patient complaint, or dealing with stress. Preparation and awareness can help providers control and direct their nonverbal behaviors. Examples of strategies that can help healthcare providers and staff consciously improve nonverbal communication include the following:

  • Smile and maintain appropriate eye contact, but do not stare.
  • Show interest in what the patient is saying and avoid tapping your fingers, gazing out of the window, looking at the clock, yawning, and other nonverbal actions that might indicate that you're bored or in a hurry.
  • Sit when you can and lean forward to show that you're engaged. Don't stand looking down on the patient in a paternalistic stance.
  • Nod your head to show you are listening.
  • Avoid a judgmental or disapproving attitude, and encourage the patient to share relevant and complete information.3

For more communication techniques and guidance, see MedPro's Communicating Effectively With Patients to Improve Quality and Safety guideline.

1 Mehrabian, A. (1981). Silent messages: implicit communication of emotions and attitudes. Retrieved from www.kaaj.com/psych/

2 Segal, J., Smith, M., Boose, G., & Jaffe, J. (2016, April). Nonverbal communication. Retrieved from www.helpguide.org/articles/relationships/nonverbal-communication.htm

3 Rogers, C. (2002, February). Your body language speaks loudly: Nonverbal communication makes patient more comfortable. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Retrieved from www2.aaos.org/acadnews/2002news/b16-7.htm

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